An extensive report from the Environmental Protection Agency found that including ethanol into the U.S. gas supply is wreaking havoc on the atmosphere and soil.
In a study titled “Biofuels and the Environment: The Second Triennial Report to Congress,” the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that ethanol derived from corn and soybeans is causing serious harm to the environment. Water, soil and air quality were all found to be adversely affected by biofuel mandates.
“Evidence since enactment of [the Energy Independence and Security Act] suggests an increase in acreage planted with soybeans and corn, with strong indications from observed changes in land use that some of this increase is a consequence of increased biofuel production,” read a portion of the 159-page report.
The ethanol mandate has negatively effected water quality, with greater biofuel production resulting in more harmful algae blooms and hypoxia. While most algae is harmless to water, some forms — such as the kind produced in Lake Eerie from biofuel feedstock — has emitted toxic chemicals into the water. This harmful algae can consume the oxygen in the water, a process known as hypoxia, killing other wildlife.
Increased irrigation — fueled by growing demand for ethanol — has also taken a toll on the ground, with the report finding “grassland-to-annual-crop conversion negatively impacts soil quality because it increases erosion and the loss of soil nutrients.”
Essentially, the study found that biofuel mandates are boosting production of corn and soybeans. Large-scale production of these crops is causing environmental degradation. The EPA also found that — at least in some instances — using ethanol in lieu of gasoline resulted in worse air emissions.
“[A]ir quality modeling suggests that production and use of ethanol as fuel to displace gasoline is likely to increase such air pollutants as PM2.5, ozone, and SOx in some locations,” read a section of the report pertaining to air quality. While traditional gasoline contains more CO2, ethanol-based fuels have more nitrogen oxides (NOx), which can be more harmful to human health. NOx can exacerbate asthma by causing inflammation of the respiratory airwaves, with long-term exposure resulting in decreased lung function
The mandate in reference concerns the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a 2005 law that requires oil refineries include a certain amount of ethanol in their fuel mix. The law was passed with the intention of aiding in climate change efforts. The RFS has proven to be controversial, with oil producers deriding the mandate as costly and unneeded. Corn growers, however, support the mandate as it drives demand for the product.
During his time leading the EPA, Scott Pruitt became an adversary of ethanol proponents after granting more RFS waivers and pushing for a rollback of the law altogether. It’s not immediately clear how the Trump administration will handle the RFS debate moving forward. Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has suggested he will continue seeking changes to the mandate, but President Donald Trump told an Iowa crowd in July that the EPA may soon allow for more ethanol to be included in gas.
The EPA study, published on June 29, came after a long delay. Federal law calls for the EPA to conduct a study on the Renewable Fuel Standard every three years, but the government was four years late this go-around. The agency’s previous ethanol study was published in 2011.